Monday, January 30, 2012

Avoiding Predictability

I'll admit.  I find most fantasy and science fiction short stories rather predictable.   This is especially a problem with shorter stories.  The issue is that these sorts of stories (flash fiction stories, generally 1,000 words or less) are generally expected to have a twist ending, a surprise that you're not supposed to see coming.  However, if you expect that it'll end in a twist, you can usually figure out what it is the moment you understand the premise of the story.  For example, let's suppose you're reading a story about a student who failed his drug test, but it's vague what the drug test is. It's because he's not taking the intelligence boosting drug his school requires.  Or how about a man wondering whether to tell his wife that she's actually a replacement, with his dead wife's memories downloaded. It turns out he's a replacement too.  Or how about a guardian being assigned an unspecified task by his superiors concerning his charge?  He's supposed to kill her, because he's not guarding her, he's guarding everyone else from her.  (I'll admit, that last one's mine.  I never said that I was immune.)  The thing is, for each of these (including mine), anyone with a modicum of genre-savvy could predict the ending well before getting to it.  All the examples are from Daily Science Fiction, but I don't mean to pick on them.  They're  convenient because I read most of their stories, and the stories are usually very short, which, as I mentioned earlier, makes them harder to make unpredictable.

Why?  What makes these stories predictable?  First, people expect a twist.  It's a standard trope of the genre, and because people expect it, they're on the lookout for it.  Second, shorter stories are simpler stories.  There's usually a single science fiction or fantasy element that's being explored, so readers know where to expect the twist from.  Third, writers learn to set up their twist early in the story.  Usually by the first couple of paragraphs, it's already been telegraphed.  The reason for this is that readers will complain if the twist comes out of nowhere.  They have to be allowed the chance to guess it, so it's expected that there will be hints of it in the beginning.  So they now know where to look for the clues to the twist.  And if they do that, there's a good chance that they will find it.

Can you frustrate these expectations and make your story really surprising?  If I really knew how, I'd be a better writer.  But here are some dos and don'ts that have occurred to me:

  1. Don't rely on word ambiguity for your twist.  "Guardian" or "drug test" are words where a little thought can reveal alternative, but equally valid, meanings.  If your reader is looking for a twist, he'll pick up on those words, and be able to figure it out.
  2. Don't put all your clues in one place.  You need clues.  If your twist comes completely out of left field, your reader will feel cheated.  But if you put everything in one place, it will be easy for them to figure out.
  3. Do write stories without a twist ending.  Not every flash fiction story needs a twist ending.  As long as you can tell a good story, you can feel free not to try to surprise your reader.  Of course, if he's expecting a twist, that in itself may surprise him.
  4. Do make your stories more complex.  If there's one premise or concept, then of course there's a limited number of ways for the story to go.  Throw in more ideas, more science fiction or fantasy, or both.  This will open up many more permutations and possibilities.
  5. Do write longer stories.  Longer stories are harder to predict.  More concepts come into play, there are more plot points and more complexity.  Of course, it's possible to write a simple long story, but even in that case, a twist is more of a surprise, since you've had longer to lure your reader into a false sense of security.
  6. Don't rely on a straightforward reversal for your twist.  Want the innocent victim your monster is hunting to turn out to be an even worse monster?  It's been done.  Want a girl to have cybersex behind her boyfriend's back, only to learn that he's the one on the other end? That's also been done.  The reversal twist is a common technique, and has been done so often that it's hard to fool an alert reader with it.  The simple reversal is too obvious a possibility to be overlooked, especially in flash fiction stories which often have just two significant characters.  But more subtle reversals still work.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Top Ten List

I've never been in a top ten list before, so I was happy to see that "Her Majesty's Guardian" has appeared in the editors' top ten list of Daily Science Fiction stories at Diabolical Plots (scroll to the bottom--almost).  Now, each of three editors had their own top ten list, and "Her Majesty's Guardian" only made one of them, but it still makes  me happy, as that makes my story one of 30 or so out of more than 250 stories to be recognized.  Thanks, folks, and thanks to Michele and Jonathan for accepting my story at Daily Science Fiction.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Hours in a day

There are a lot of hours in a day.  That's something that isn't so obvious when you commute over an hour each way to work, stay there for eight or nine hours, and come home and spend time with your family, and maybe squeeze in two hours for writing before going to bed.  But when you have a day to yourself, like I did this Saturday, you can get a lot done.

So you generally spend most of it watching television or playing games, because frankly, you've already planned what work you're going to do based on the old time allotments, and you simply don't have enough to fill those hours.  What I really should have done is gotten some short story submissions in.  Of course, the problem is that many of the places I would like to submit are closed, so I'm waiting for them to open rather than sending them off to other places.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Superhero movies

In preparation for the Avengers movie coming out this year, my wife and I have been watching all the "prequels"--the Marvel superhero origin movies for the Avenger characters.  A number of them have come out the past few years.  I thought it might be helpful to rate them in order from best to worst, at least as Kristin and I see them.
  1. Thor  -- Thanks to an intricate plot and a complex villain, Thor was my wife's favorite. It didn't hurt that it was heavy on fantasy, and Kristin's a fantasy author.
  2. Iron Man -- Tony Stark's not a very likable character, but at least he's trying to be a better person.  He sort of succeeds in this one.
  3. Captain America -- Kristin was originally reluctant to see this one, worried that it might be too jingoistic for a Canadian.  Ultimately, she thought it was all right.  I thought it was fun, but Captain America isn't really one of my favorite superheroes.
  4. Iron Man 2 -- And Tony backslides, into being even more of a jerk than before.  Kristin hasn't seen this one yet, so I haven't gotten her opinion.
  5. The Hulk -- The least of the movies.  Part of the problem was that while the others were origin stories, The Hulk showed the origin of the main character in the opening credits.  It also suffered from stiff acting and fake-looking special effects.
So, that's our thoughts so far.  Hopefully, the Avengers will be closer to Thor and Iron Man than the Hulk.